St David’s Hall, Cardiff, November 30, 2018
Soloist: Jian Wang
Conductor: Long Yu
Glazunov: The Seasons (Autumn)
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme; Andante Cantabile
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88
A concert featuring two distinguished Chinese musicians might raise the question of whether Western music has given more to the East than Eastern musical traditions have reciprocated. The conductor Long Yu and the cellist Jian Wang both studied at the Shanghai Conservatory before embarking on international careers, and on this showing have completely absorbed the musical manner and matter emanating from European music history. While Russia might geographically have more affinity with China, its composers have been almost entirely Europhile, not least Tchaikovsky. The popularity of the Western canon continues to grow in China, where Long Yu is its ambassador, particularly in his capacity as an honorary member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s international advisory board. Jian Wang has recorded widely with Deutsche Grammophon, notably the Brahms double concerto with violinist Gil Shaham and the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado.
The two joined forces in the Tchaikovsky works, the Andante Cantabile being from his famous first string quartet and arranged by the composer for cello and string orchestra, the solo cello carrying the well-known melody to its cool, unruffled ending. Essentially it’s the same music but with more emphasis on the cello part, something suited to Jian’s style of playing with its assertive vibrato – sometimes too heavy for this reviewer’s taste but part of an approach that otherwise avoids grandstanding, and a feature of his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Here the Philharmonia’s almost insouciant approach to these familiar – sometimes over-familiar – scores allowed the soloist to bathe in the soundscape. Long’s unwillingness to etch any disparity into the theme’s seven exegeses reflected the even tenor of the music, a sharp-witted exercise by a composer noted for his often deep melancholia. He had reason to be less than upbeat at the time, as his opera Vakula the Smith (St. Petersburg, 1876) bombed at its premiere against all expectations; at the same time, the notorious critic Hanslick lambasted the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet when it was conducted by Richter in Vienna, even though the audience appeared to like it. Setbacks like these for a composer like Tchaikovsky were almost clinical in their effects. Tchaikovsky adored Mozart, and if the Rococo Variations do not mark his veneration in terms of strict style they are nonetheless imbued with his spirit of free, almost capricious, invention. Long’s job seemingly was to maintain the equilibrium between a softly highlighted soloist and the charm and elegance of an orchestra consisting of just strings, double woodwind and two horns. It’s a work in which baton-waving often seems superfluous, the cello and orchestra so hermetically engaged that they float off together.
That was an arrangement encouraged by the concert as a whole. It began with the orchestra numerically charged and in full sail for Glazunov’s ‘Autumn’, a movement from his ballet The Seasons. Glazunov belongs to the category of composers who rarely probe the darkness of human experience, preferring instead to concentrate on the power of music and its stylish orchestrations to paint pictures. When tribulation or anxiety is depicted, it’s always mitigated by compositional facility. Glazunov had it in abundance, and he has his counterparts in almost every other country. Technical prowess serving Romanticism was his forte, so the ballet’s story is emblematic and mystical, the seasons giving opportunities meteorological rather than realistic. The bacchanal’s presence was pictorial, not physical. It was showpiece stuff for a band of refinement and nobility.
And so it continued in Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, a work that’s homely and breezy to start with and thus requires only a modicum of ‘interpretation’ on the conductor’s part. The work was hampered by controversy, being first heard in England after the composer rejected his German publisher’s much-reduced offer of payment (almost a tithe of its fee for the popular Seventh Symphony). The composer was a big draw in Britain. The Eighth’s cheerfulness and release from the strictures of form that characterised the Seventh – essentially an alignment with a Brahmsian model – seems almost cavalier, though it had been written before the confrontation with a parsimonious Simrock, the composer’s paymaster. Its lightness is different from Glazunov’s: it reflects a nostalgic love of homeland and a questing compositional mind. As such, its outpouring of melody, its disdain for received wisdom, and its unqualified rejoicing are elements a conductor merely has to set in train. Long reduced that function almost to self-effacement, like a visitor tapping his foot on the sidelines while a band plays a Slavonic waltz, as it does controversially and with a hint of melancholy in the third movement. But he never allowed the orchestra to be carried away, insisting on the brass section’s calls to attention and allowing the variants to echo those that are the longer Tchaikovsky work’s reason for being. (There’s an interesting link here in that Tchaikovsky, in his Fifth Symphony, had introduced a waltz, to the consternation of furrow-browed purists.) Nor was Long oblivious of the work’s architecture, however much artfully concealed and everywhere decorated in playing of unanimity and feeling by an orchestra attuned to every nuance and light touch; even if it did, on occasion, tend to take its finesse for granted.
Nigel Jarrett is a writer and critic and a former daily-newspaper journalist. He won the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts Prize. He has published a novel; a poetry collection; and two volumes of stories, the first, Funderland, being praised by the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and several more. He was formerly music critic of the South Wales Argus and now writes for Wales Arts Review, among others. Templar Press is soon to publish his pamphlet of stories, A Gloucester Trilogy. He lives in Monmouthshire, and swims a lot.